"If you listen to an explosion, people from my generation know if it's a bomb or if it's something else," the writer recalled. "We got used to walking around with a coin in our pockets so in case of a bombing we could go to the nearest pay phone and call home."
It's a story likely to resonate with Vásquez's readers whether or not they are from Colombia. Having left Bogotá in 1996, the writer discussed working on the novel in Spain only several years after the Madrid train bombings of 2004. Then, after 17 years in Europe, he returned to Bogotá, driven by the urge to live again in the country he has written obsessively about—and the hope that his twin daughters might experience Colombian life.
"The interesting thing is how universal these emotions are," he said. "There are people who have gone through times of terrorism, whether it's the IRA in Ireland or the Shining Path in Peru or 9/11 attacks in New York. So everybody knows at this time and place in history, the Western world in the 21st century, what it's like to live with fear, with this kind of anxiety, this kind of unpredictable violence. And I think that has in a way shaped the reception of the book."
Like those before him, Vásquez has written a story of Latin America for the rest of the world to savor, but his is coated in fear and terror rather than mysticism.
Tragedy, Not Magic
"I don't think magical realism is a major reference for writers in Latin America anymore," Marcela Valdesm, the NPR critic, told me. "I think people continue to use it as a frame of reference because we still haven't seen a novel in the United States that has had the same impact as Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude."
But she cautioned against generalizing all Latin-American literature together. "There's just too much variety with what's going on, and the region is so enormous."
Vásquez, though, noted the spiked interest in the region's literary output. "It does feel like something is happening," he said. "After what we call the Latin American 'boom generation'—involving Márquez and Carlos Fuentes and all those people who made us discover the people who came before—I don't think American readers have been so attentive to what's going on in Latin American literature as [they are to] what is going on today."
He admitted that his novels diverge sharply from the flourishes that have dominated the Latin-American tradition for so long. Indeed, he has publicly proclaimed this agenda, as Edmund White quotes in his review:
In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading One Hundred Years of Solitude . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.
But his is not a conscious rebellion. It's the only way he knows how to write about his country.
"My work is a reaction to the idea of magical realism as the only way to discover Latin America," he explained to the Wire. "It's something that still many readers believe. And this is obviously something I strongly oppose. I don't feel Latin America is a magical continent. I feel Latin American history is, if anything, tragedy."
"It's the tragedy of recent Latin American history," he said, "that I'm trying to tell in my novel."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.